Jamestown Historical Society

Ferries Known for Long Lines

This article was written by Sue Maden and Rosemary Enright for The Jamestown Press on June 15, 2023.
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Before the Newport Pell Bridge was completed in 1969, the only way to get from Jamestown to Newport was to take the ferry or drive through Providence.

Although the schedule changed from year to year, ferries ran about every hour in the winter and every half hour in the summer, weather permitting. A queue of cars, buses and a few trucks filled the East Ferry waiting lanes, sometimes lining Conanicus Avenue to beyond the Bay Voyage and occasionally to Weeden Lane. Most truckers preferred the 90-minute drive around the bay to the uncertainty of the ferry.

Cars wait in line at East Ferry to board the incoming ferryboat to Newport in the 1960s. The ferry, aside from driving through Providence, was the only way to get to Aquidneck Island until 1969.
Cars wait in line at East Ferry to board the incoming ferryboat to Newport in the 1960s. The ferry, aside from driving through Providence, was the only way to get to Aquidneck Island until 1969.

According to Patty Vandal, who collected tickets on the ferries in the 1950s, the 6 a.m. ferryboat to Newport carried commuters to their jobs, including the torpedo station; the return trip brought workers on their way to Quonset. In the evening, the same people traveled in the opposite direction. In the 1960s, reminisced David Sylvia, a basset hound joined the commute, getting on the boat that left about 8 a.m. and returning at 3 p.m.

On Mondays, the scene was more hectic. Sailors, who had missed the last ferry on Sunday and were due back at their Newport base, often slept in their cars in line to get on the first ferry that morning. During World War II, German prisoners of war who were housed at Jamestown’s military installations also were transported on the early boat. They traveled in trucks, packed 25 to a vehicle.

“We were afraid of them at first,” purser Jayne Clarke said, but they soon became part of the everyday ferry scene.

Jamestown high school students took the second ferry of the day. Its scheduled arrival gave them just enough time to walk from the Newport ferry wharf to Rogers High or to one of the private schools. One student reported she regularly missed religion, the first class of the day. Usually, the students took the 4:40 p.m. ferry back, but if a storm loomed, they were called from class early, to the envy of their Newport classmates.

The rigidness of the ferry schedule meant most Jamestown kids didn’t participate in extracurricular activities. Those who did occasionally missed the last ferry. When that happened, they slept where they could find a place to lie down. That could be a hotel (if they could afford it or if the town was paying), a teammate’s house, the ferry waiting room, or, at least a few times, in an empty cell at the Newport police station.

The crew knew all these daily passengers. The midday travelers were less predictable, although in the winter months most were familiar faces on their way to shop, lunch with friends or visit a doctor.

In the summer, Newport attracted the noteworthy and famous. Throughout the 1950s, John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, were in and out all summer. They would go to Pitchers Drug Store at East Ferry for ice cream cones while they waited for the next ferry. Sometimes, Kennedy’s brother, Robert, would be there.

After Kennedy’s assassination, Jackie continued to bring the children to the family estate in Newport by way of Jamestown. Captain Herbert Pimentel remembers holding JFK’s son, John-John, on his lap and letting the little boy steer the boat.

Other political figures also took the ferry. Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit was remembered by one ferry employee because the staff was appalled when she wanted to use the wharf’s ladies’ room; instead, they led up her Narragansett Avenue to a private home. Dwight D. Eisenhower was an occasional passenger, and U.S. Sens. Theodore Green, Claiborne Pell and John Chafee frequently were seen.

Singers, actors, and other celebrities also were ferried across the bay. In the early 1940s, while the submarine movie “Crash Dive” was being filmed in the waters around Jamestown, its stars, Tyrone Power and Dana Andrews, were common sights on the ferry and around town.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, described by Jamestown ferry employee Margaret Fleming as “ordinary” (the Duke) and “beautiful” (the Duchess), passed through the turnstile that Fleming worked in the 1930s. Other noted passengers — some of them attracted by the Newport Jazz Festival – included Groucho Marx, Bette Davis, Duke Ellington, Barbra Streisand, Joe Williams, Dave Brubeck, Joan Baez, Brenda Lee, Tommy Dorsey, and Judy Garland.

Not all the summer ferry riders were rich or famous. On hot days, riders seeking relief from the heat would ride back and forth, enjoying the coolness of the bay. If they stayed on the boat, they didn’t have to pay another fare.

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